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Humbert wonders what happens to nymphets as they grow older. He describes his affair with the young prostitute Monique, which ends when Monique matures out of her nymphet phase. Humbert then encounters an aging procuress who provides him with another prostitute who, although young, isn’t a nymphet in Humbert’s view. When he tries to leave, the girl becomes angry. Humbert takes her upstairs and pays her, but he doesn’t sleep with her.
In an effort to curtail his illicit desires, Humbert decides to get married. He courts and marries a Polish doctor’s daughter named Valeria. He finds the conquest rather easy, given his good looks, but states that despite his success with adult women, he considers himself hopeless in matters of sex.
Humbert chooses Valeria because of her childlike nature and flirtatious, doll-like airs, and she quickly falls in love with him. Despite his initial attraction to her girlish personality, Humbert finds Valeria’s intellectual inferiority distasteful, and he rarely sleeps with her. After some time, an uncle dies and leaves him an inheritance, but the will includes the condition that Humbert move to America and take some interest in the uncle’s business. Valeria feels reluctant to leave Paris, though Humbert tries to convince her that she’ll enjoy America. Finally, Valeria confesses to having an affair with a taxi driver. Despite his relative indifference to Valeria, Humbert feels deeply betrayed and thinks about killing her. Courteous and apologetic, the taxi driver arrives to take Valeria away. He does not leave Humbert alone with Valeria at any moment, so Humbert can’t kill her. Valeria rather melodramatically packs her things and leaves. He later learns that Valeria died in childbirth in 1945, after she and her husband moved to California to participate in a bizarre psychological experiment.
At this point in the story, Humbert becomes distracted by the poor state of the prison library. He names some of the books available, including the Children’s Encyclopedia, which he likes for the pictures of Girl Scouts. He notes a surprising coincidence in a copy of Who’s Who in the Limelight and transcribes a page for the reader. The page includes the playwright Clare Quilty, who wrote such plays as The Little Nymph and Fatherly Love. Who’s Who claims that Quilty’s works with children are particularly notable. The transcribed page also contains an entry on Dolores Quine, and Humbert says that seeing Lolita’s given name, Dolores, still gives him a thrill. He states that his Lolita might have appeared in a play called The Murdered Playwright, and he plays word games with the names “Quine” and “Quilty.” He notes that he now has only words to play with.
Humbert recounts his travels to New York, where he takes a job transcribing French literature and writing perfume ads. He watches the nymphets in Central Park and later has a breakdown due to the stress of his job. After his release from the sanitarium, Humbert takes part in an exploratory trip to the Arctic, where he is charged with studying the psychology of his teammates. The trip improves his health, but he finds the project tedious and publishes a phony analysis of the psychological issues he was supposed to be studying. Upon his return, he has another breakdown and is institutionalized once again, where he enjoys confusing the doctors with fictional symptoms. This behavior improves his mood greatly. He stays for a few months before checking out and reentering the world.
The digression into Who’s Who in the Limelight initially seems like a diversion but, in fact, represents another narrative game on Nabokov’s part. Like the list of characters in the foreword, the meaning of the facts unearthed in the book will only become clear much later in the novel. Humbert offers clues that suggest the reason for his incarceration, in his word games (“guilty of killing Quilty”) and his offhand remark that Lolita might have appeared in a play called The Murdered Playwright. The incident contains certain clues about Quilty’s character, as well. For example, the fact that the Who’s Who notes Quilty for his plays with children will seem disturbingly ironic when the reader learns that Quilty traffics in child pornography. Though Humbert transcribes the entry on Quilty, he doesn’t pass any comment on it, remaining fixated on the name Dolores. Nabokov’s word games indicate that neither meaning nor truth will be fixed or literal. In Lolita, words become unmoored from their ostensible referents and take on new meanings, depending on their narrator and the point of view.
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